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Gestural politics.

At its margins, human life dissolves into banality. Our milestone moments seem to invite other people to hang on them millstones of ponderous rhetoric of which few ever question the desirability or even the necessity. Having for family reasons just attended commencement exercises at New York University, I can report, for instance, that the jazz musician and impresario Quincy Jones believes that racial stereotyping is "stupid" and is prepared to provide at length several examples of this stupidity--in case, presumably, you happen to be stupid--and that the retiring Treasury Secretary, Robert Rubin, has learned that "The only thing certain is that there is no certainty." Therefore, says Mr. Rubin, we "need to be decisive in the face of uncertainty" and recognize that "good decision-making is the key to good outcomes." This was said on the day that his own decision to resign as Treasury Secretary was announced, but there nevertheless appeared no larger significance to the observation.

Rubin also said that he believed there were "no absolutes" and that in this belief he was "supported by modern science." He might have added that he was also supported by modern politics, at least as practiced by his boss, Bill Clinton. But one absolute that seems to have escaped the hecatomb of sacred cows is that at graduations, as at other times of separation--"marriage, and birth, and death, and thoughts of these;' as Larkin says--even the excellent Mr. Rubin is left with nothing to say but the obvious, the trite, the inoffensive. In the same way, words like "Doesn't she make a beautiful bride?" or "He looks just like his mother" or "At least she didn't suffer for long" have about them a kind of sacredness, if only because such things have been said so often before by so many generations of our predecessors. They were said at our births, our christenings, and our marriages, and will be said at our funerals in some "special shell" built just for the purpose of containing them and suggesting, like academic pageantry, a sense of mystery and solemnity rather than the tedium they so often induce elsewhere.

It is therefore not entirely the fault of television and the media if their response to the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado, was to indulge themselves in a bacchanal of banality the likes of which have not been seen since the funeral of the Princess of Wales. The box in our living rooms, though it is getting bigger and bigger all the time and will doubtless soon attain Imax proportions for those who can afford to house it, is small in its essence, small in spirit. Merely by bringing its window on the world into the home, television shrinks the world to domestic proportions, with all the comic triviality that domesticity implies. It is therefore unable to suggest the eternal dimension of the events it commemorates in the way that ecclesiastical architecture does, or public ceremonies in places you have to make an effort to get to. In the open air and a splendid academic gown, under the triumphal arch in Washington Square, even Robert Rubin looked as if he must have something to say--or so I thought, judging by what I could see up there on the jumbotron.

But television's bourgeois earnestness also lacks a sense of irony, or of its own limitations, and so we see that, when something like Littleton or the Death of a Princess comes along, the media wallow in pofaced pieties of an entirely predictable kind, shot through with therapeutic jargon about "healing" or "closure." Early reports that at least one of the murders appeared to have been racially motivated also brought out, though briefly, the anti-racialist pieties that are useful for any occasion nowadays. In addition, there was led forth an endless parade of "experts" on how to recognize the "warning signs" of incipient Harrises and Klebolds. Afraid your son or daughter might massacre his or her high school classmates? Better buy Time or Newsweek to find out what you can do (hint from Newsweek: "spotting the warning signs isn't enough"). Talk about news you can use!

But all the "lessons of Littleton" whether of the practical or the theoretical sort, had the intellectual heft of the "healing tree" that "grief counselors" encouraged bereaved or anxious pupils to make and cover with "leaves" bearing messages like: "I've learned that hate is destructive" That the media treat such jejune fare as true spiritual nourishment is presumably related to their belief that they fulfill a quasi-priestly function, standing above mere "partisanship" on a higher plane of spiritual enlightenment. But one consequence of their doing so is the further ritualization of public discourse. By now the arguments for gun control (on the left) and against media "violence" (on the right) are so familiar that they could be reduced to liturgical form, if anyone thought to go to the trouble, and chanted by antiphonal choirs of pundits on "Crossfire" with no smaller degree of edification to the public than the existing media-managed "debate" provides.

Not for the first time, one has the impression that America's civic religion, as it is practiced by the media and the increasing number of those who play to the media, represents a failure of politics, a confession that the things we profess to care most about are not important enough to require us to compromise. We can agree to differ on guns, or media violence, or abortion or any of a number of other matters--even to differ violently at times--because so few people are so dissatisfied with the status quo as to demand a consensus other than the de facto one. With the bombing of Yugoslavia we see that this political failure applies, incredibly, even to war. You may like or dislike the war; you may think we should do more or could do less. But we don't care enough either about the Kosovans slaughtered by Serbs or the Serbs slaughtered by NATO'S bombs (or, for that matter, the Kosovans slaughtered by NATO bombs or the Serbs slaughtered by Kosovans) to demand anything different from or more politically or intellectually coherent than the vague half-war NATO is waging as I write.

Probably nobody really expects political solutions to social problems anymore. Maybe there are none. Certainly none is obvious in the case of the Littleton massacre. But the demand for political gestures remains high--something which it was the genius of Bill Clinton to recognize and exploit to his own and his party's advantage. Even practicing politicians now enjoy the luxury, long thought the prerogative of the media, of being able to preach endlessly without ever having to do anything, at least anything substantive. It was presumably because gestural politics had served Clinton so well for the previous seven years that he thought he could fight a gestural war. Instinct naturally suggests that this is the point at which the usefulness of gesture runs out, but in the post-Monica era, when all the old rules seem to have changed, it would hardly surprise us to find Slobodan Milosevic standing shoulder to shoulder with Clinton at the next National Prayer Breakfast, confessing that ethnic cleansing had been a "mistake" and giving thanks for the promised American aid package to rebuild his shattered country.

If it lacked a little of the chutzpah of a gesture like that, Clinton's own response to the Littleton massacre was a classic of gestural politics in its own right. "We don't know yet all the how's or why's of this tragedy" he said; "perhaps we will never fully understand it." And then, mangling the quotation in his best Good News Bible style, he added:
 St. Paul reminds us that we all see things in life darkly, that we only
 partly understand what is happening.... We do know that we must do more to
 reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to
 resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.

That was particularly rich, of course, coming from the man who had been bombing the hell out of Serbia for the previous month, but no one in the media seemed to make that connection. It was like a headline I saw in the British press, which has a long tradition of jingoism about imperial wars, at the time when a nail bomb went off in a gay bar in London. Prime Minister Tony Blair, who does not have a long tradition of jingoism about imperial wars but who is being very jingoistic about this one, had compared the explosion (in which at least three people died) to "ethnic cleansing" in Yugoslavia and had promised, said the headline, that "The Bombers Will Fail" Both he and the newspaper seemed to have forgotten that, in Yugoslavia, the bombers had been sent by him.

Still, the president's psychobabble sounded almost nuanced in comparison with the knee-jerk reaction of most of the media. As The New York Times editorial put it on the morning after the massacre, "it is not too early to begin drawing lessons." Indeed, it is never too early, or too late, to be drawing this particular lesson, which was "the urgent need for concerted action by Congress, state legislatures, and gun manufacturers to keep guns out of the hands of troubled youngsters. School shootings had been in decline this year, but yesterday's blasts in Colorado are a grim reminder that guns are still too readily available." That was a "lesson" that had, in fact, been drawn long before and only awaited some new occasion to be brought forward once again, possibly in conjunction with the therapeutic lesson. Thus Janet Reno said: "We've got to get guns out of the hands of young people. We've got to make sure they have the counseling, the support to help them come to grips with the anger of their life when it occurs."

Incidentally, not even the fact that the murderous teens, Harris and Klebold, had previously been required to enroll in "anger management" courses and had passed with flying colors seemed to blunt the edge of the urgency in the calls for such therapeutic nostrums. The demand for banalities of all kinds was just too great, particularly at the "violence summit" convened by the president three weeks after the massacre. A lesser Democrat might have been content with using this occasion to make the one gesture guaranteed to win him the unstinting praise of the media with little or no risk of any resulting substantive change. He could, that is, simply have heeded The New York Times's ringing call for new anti-gun legislation. That, as the National Rifle Association and others persistently pointed out, some twenty-two existing gun laws were broken by the Colorado killers seemed to none of the advocates of this response to the killings a reason for skepticism about the usefulness of passing still more laws for future killers to break.

Everyone recognized, that is, that the laws were not meant to be useful in preventing future killers from going about their business but only in providing slender if sufficient documentation for the proposition that those who passed the laws had "done something" in response to these killings. Clinton was naturally not averse to "doing something" of this sort, and his proposed new law closing the "loophole" by which private gun owners at gun shows had not had to do background checks on those who bought guns from them had a rather comical history. First defeated in Congress, the bill passed only a day later when several Republicans switched their votes--by some reports in response to lobbying by George W. Bush, the Governor of Texas and prospective Republican presidential candidate. Bush presumably wanted the party to appear on the "moderate" side of the issue, which is to say the side that is always willing to support symbolic measures so long as they have no material usefulness whatsoever.

Whether it was on account of pressure from Bush or a naturally-occurring hunger for such "moderation" the episode showed that the Republicans were learning from Clinton who, without breaking with the gun-controllers, characteristically tried to be on both sides at once. "You know, I could take either side in the guns-versus-culture argument" he said to Democratic contributors in Seattle. Thus, both at the "violence summit" and later in the same week in his weekly radio address, he had some mildly critical words for the entertainment industry. "We cannot pretend that there is no impact on our culture and our children that is adverse if there is too much violence coming out of what they see and experience" he said, and went on to propose that those responsible for movie marketing should not show too much violence in previews for R-rated films that children (who supposedly couldn't see the films themselves) might see. Likewise, they should encourage exhibitors to enforce the rule against under-seventeens getting into R-rated films and think again about the amount of violence allowed under the PG rubric.

Once again, no one could suppose that such exhortations were anything but symbolic. Hours after delivering them, Clinton attended a Hollywood fund-raiser sponsored by the DreamWorks trio of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. To them and the other Hollywood Clintonites, he said that "There's no call for finger-pointing here" and that nothing he had said about fabricated images of violence should be construed as having made out "anybody who makes any movie or any video game or any television program [to be] a bad person or personally responsible with one show for a disastrous outcome" Some Republicans pointed to Clinton's hypocrisy, but we are now too used to symbolic politics for either the media or Clinton's political opposition to have much stomach for criticizing him on these grounds. Just as neither Clinton nor any mainstream Democrat proposed a Draconian gun ban like that imposed by Britain after the Dunblane massacre, so no Republican critic of the corruption of popular entertainment was willing to propose anything that might be construed as "censorship."

For "moderates" on both sides now long to come out just where Clinton did on the "violence summit" which he summed up by saying: "This was exactly the kind of session I had hoped for, where everyone was talking about the problems and the opportunities. ... No one was pointing the finger of blame." There was an interesting counterpoint between all this talking and the stress placed by administration officials and others on "listening." Said Janet Reno on "Meet the Press," "We all have to learn to better communicate with the children of America ... to train our police officers to listen, train our teachers to listen." She had learned from Littleton, she said, that "kids have something to say, something to contribute. They're not all bad.... It's important to listen to our children." Tipper Gore, appearing on the same show also stressed the need to "listen" but at the summit itself it was not listening but talking that was the order of the day. As Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times observed: "So many factors were identified--the Internet, movies, parental responsibility, domestic violence, lack of religious faith, a coarsening of the culture--that guns were lost in the shuffle."

Not surprisingly, The New York Times misses the point of the New Democrat, Third Way kind of gesturalism, which is precisely to make sure that everything gets lost in the shuffle. Where political success depends on avoiding disturbance to the status quo, listening like acting (in other than symbolic ways) has dangerous implications. Far better to keep talking, and if all the talk consists of things that have already been said, so much the better. As one participant in the "summit" sixteen-year-old Miss Pheniece Jones of "US Kids TV" put it to Miss Seelye: "It seemed like ordinary stuff that people say all the time." Miss Jones's own most memorable experience at the summit came from having met Andrew Shue, a TV star from "Melrose Place," whom she described as "really nice."

Of course, for teenagers of a less equable disposition than Pheniece's, just having to listen to so much anodyne but otherwise effectless rhetoric can itself lead to violent fantasy. In the movie Election which opened the week after the Littleton shootings, we see what happens when candidates for president of a high school Student Government Association give speeches of staggering banality. First Miss Go-getter talks about meaningless measures to solve non-existent problems in a way that is strikingly Clintonian. Then a brainless jock with a passing resemblance to Bob Dole reads an even worse speech couched entirely in vague generalities and illustrated with reminders of his exploits on the football field. Finally, the latter's sister, who is running against him out of revenge for his having unwittingly stolen her lesbian girlfriend, gets up and says that the whole election is a charade, and that the only thing she would do as their president would be to abolish pointless assemblies like this one. Everyone cheers wildly.

We sympathize at once. One of the consequences of increased mealy-mouthedness is increased violent fantasy, just as one of the consequences of increased violent fantasy is increased mealy-mouthedness from those who, like Mr. Clinton, don't want to "point the finger of blame." It seems a vicious circle inseparable from the banalization of public discourse, which is in turn the inevitable result of the media's making such a shibboleth out of "moderation" and "bipartisanship." There are doubtless many who are glad that the aftermath of the Littleton killings did not pit one group of honest men, who want to ban the private possession of firearms, against another, who want to appoint a board of censors to oversee the film, television, and recording industries. I myself think that, probably, doing nothing at all makes more sense than either of these two starkly rational alternatives (or, indeed, both). But the further entrenching of gestural politics, which has been the actual consequence, may turn out to be the worst outcome of all when, one day, America has matters of national survival in hand and nothing to address them with but good intentions and a political language consisting only of "ordinary stuff that people say all the time."

James Bowman is the American editor of the London Times Literary Supplement and the film critic of The American Spectator.
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Author:Bowman, James
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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